Having shifted from Louth’s east coast to a more accessible spot near Dundalk, strung together a top Irish-only festival line up and scaled the festival down to suit the moderate turn-out, Vantastival once again turns out to be a family event that kicks off prodigiously after hours. Tucked in to the shadow of the Cooley Mountains, for one weekend only Louth becomes home to a treasure trove of unheralded Irish musicians…
Two hours into Vantastival, and the Musicmaker Stage – a tent cunningly designed to resemble Newgrange, and scattered with occasional lounge furniture – is already running two hours late. The thing about landing in a community focused spot like this, is that things like time just don’t seem to matter all that much. Even Eleventyfour, the tent’s childlike genius of an opener, seems more entertained than irritated by her set being shortened by needing to run for the bus. She’s got an ear for a modest acoustic melody, but centres tracks around witty yet surreal fairy tales. There are references to doing good deeds with stolen machinery, falling in love with a special foetus and upbeat tales about the strange directions her friends take her in. It’s knowingly, offhandedly simple stuff, but perfectly matched with the venue: when a dozen or so kids leap frantically in the front row as Eleventyfour closes with a song about Sicilian cake, the smiling tone of the festival is already set.
Tarantella Fall, whose dingy concept album impressed without taking off earlier this year, almost over-perform, strutting like they’re playing to thousands not dozens, but their sound is tight and full of the morbid, swirling chord style of Springsteen album tracks written on massive downers. Soon, we’re drawn to the Lock Up, a decrepit barn coated in wire butterflies playing gloriously inappropriate host to a harsh local metal act. Blood Letting play rampant, abrasive chords that shudder enough to shake the decaying walls. It’s hardly ground breaking musically, but with a non-commercial booze policy and crowds building as the evening wears on, Vantastival’s reputation for atmosphere overpowers its need for aural epiphanies
Podge, Ham Sandwich (above)’s notoriously Buckfast-hungry co-leader, has clearly been imbibing Vantastival’s free-spirited… erm… environment. Markedly the worse for wear, the maniacal vocalist opens the set by leaping from an amp and whipping his backside from beneath his silver shiny pants. Later, he swings from cables, insults assorted members of the audience, attempts to crowd surf to near dangerous affect and contributes ranting, rambling asides almost as long as the songs. It doesn’t take a psychologist to see the irritation of the rest of the band – D’Arcy in particular is fuming – and eventually we suspect Podge’s underused guitar is unplugged entirely.
He’s always been a bit of a rogue – a loveable one, the majority of the time – and to be fair to Podge, he’s often the band’s very core. Tonight, the rest of Ham Sandwich battle gallantly. Niamh’s glorious vocals overcoming any issues in the soaring chorus of ‘Ants’, and her Kate Bush cover ‘Running Up That Hill’, which could have been written for her spine-chilling falsetto. At times it’s shambolic; at others things labour to touching highs and offer quite unforgettable entertainment. Whether the band as a whole will see the extra aspects of that entertainment as a good thing remains to be seen, but for all its high points, tonight’s set is somewhat hard to watch.
Saturday’s headliners, The Original Rudeboys, are far from impressive, but at a festival like this it doesn’t really matter all that much. The Rudeboys are a cheese-fest of an urban boy band with a little bit of spoken-word ish rap thrown in, and have little in the way of redeeming features, but for us the headliner came hours earlier.
The Barley Mob are a true rarity: reggae isn’t exactly storming the fort of the Irish music scene, but there’s far more to this impressive grouping than a clever play on words. Buoyed by a timely bout of sunshine, the absorbing angle on The Barley Mob’s lightly accented reggae comes in its personal nature, spouted in a weird accented mix of Irish and faux-Jamaican. One track, for example, is dedicated to a deceased sibling, and his parting message to front man Adam Daly, “You’ll never be lost (when you’ve got music)”. There could scarcely be a stronger recommendation for a laid back band like this than the streams of kids invading the front rows giggling helplessly.
Galway’s Ka Tet aren’t far behind. Performing to a thin crowd, the three-piece are tight enough to use extended silences in amongst their riffs without even glancing at each other, and produce a slightly abrasive style of math rock, using a fantastically inconsistent rhythmic backdrop to add multiple dimensions to their sound.
In be amongst the highs, we catch the equally surreal worlds of The Amazing Few and Jinx Lennon. The Amazing Few seem to work on the same on-stage-party ethos as The Go! Team, except lifted direct from a seriously muddled mind. They’re somewhat less musically inspiring than the London band’s cheerleaders, and revel in a kind of cabaret shock factor, but it does little for us. Jinx Lennon, whose built a reputation on beats layered with the oddest of social observation, seems more like a machine gun spattering of assorted disconnected phraseology than anything coherent, though his text sunglasses are memorable, at least.
Ireland’s ‘other’ reggae band, Karma Parking, sweep hangovers away without ever quite inspiring early in the day, leaving Cathy Davey, relieved of her headline slot, to deliver the shot to the arm the post Barley Mob crowd needed. Cathy’s never been the most dramatic of songwriters, but getting lost amongst her mellow chords and soaring through the summery tangling of ‘Little Red’ is a serene highlight, and while the highlights are thrown in early, there’s a serenity to Davey’s songwriting that fits with the sunset slot. The night, as they tend to at festivals, descends into a garbled, wondrous mess.
AU’s Sunday experience is cut off slightly earlier by our Bank Holiday schedule, but there’s still plenty of time to explore. Our Vantastival mornings have been write-offs, but come midday, the organic food bus just about puts things right as first of the bands are stumbling on stage. Still, it’s hard to miss the collective Sunday lethargy.
Champagne Animal (main pic), stepping first on to the main stage, prove to be a weekend highlight. Front woman Siobhan Lynch sounds eerily similar to Beth Ditto, if slightly more measured, and delivers the fully-formed songwriting of a far more experienced band. Her heady opera-rock approach delves into afflicted heart aches, with the band treating the show like a headline slot, setting up a Temper Trap-esque glitter-drum finale aided by a storm of confetti. Not just a great show, but a performance worthy of some serious attention – watch out for these guys.
The Raglans, who follow shortly afterwards, are also on form, delivering a lively dose of indie-pop from The Fratellis’ school of earworm melody. The lyrics can be a touch obvious, and The Raglans certainly have a style that was more prominent six to eight years ago, but the tight, infectious quality to what they produce is excellent, especially when they chuck in the odd mandolin solo. The lyrics… they’ll need to be a little less daft to really convince us. The rest of the day’s earliest risers make little impact: Cold Steel Feel are about what you’d expect from a band of that name, but don’t convince, and Inni-K’s subtle production has some beautiful moments, but seems to overuse her layered approach to sampling and turns several songs into a smouldering mess by the time tracks reach their conclusion.
All in, though, Vantastival has once again done a great job of picking out a quality selection of lesser known acts. The new setting really adds to the vibe of the place, and despite a few hiccups with stage times, things generally come together well. There’s an increasingly loyal audience coming back year after year, and while we suspect Vantastival might be struggling a touch financially, the survival of this festival gives great exposure to Louth bands and offers a top introduction to the regional music scene in general. Could they use that truly huge headliner, or even a high-profile mis-step like Alabama 3 last year? In an environment where festivals seem to grow on trees, probably, but as the season’s first festival and one of the few that seem to offer a genuine sense of community, this sparkling little mish-mash is not to be ignored. James Hendicott
The Highs: Great little-known bands, family atmosphere by day and chaos by night, finding a venue that better matches the attendance, outlook just about as messy as you choose to make it, and wonderfully quirky stage design.
The Lows: Still feeling a touch sparsely populated (especially early in the day), and occasional musical apathy
Photos by Sean Smyth. More here.
As published in AU Magazine, May 2012.